Getting a knot in your stomach while watching your team’s closer, like tying your shoes, quickly becomes second nature. Orioles closer Tommy Hunter has had my insides tangled from day one of the 2014 season.
This week’s series with the Rays was particularly challenging. In two innings pitched, Hunter faced 12 batters and allowed four hits, two walks and one run. He left the bases loaded in a two-run victory on Tuesday and stranded runners on first and third in a one-run victory on Wednesday.
Two saves for Hunter. Two wins for the Orioles. Two twisted evenings for my innards.
Buck Showalter offered his take following Wednesday’s win: “It’s not always going to be aesthetically pleasing.”
Here’s looking at you, Tommy.
Overall, Hunter has had runners in scoring position with two outs in nine of his 14 appearances in 2014. Batters have posted a .378 batting average, .a 429 on-base percentage and a .486 slugging percentage in his 10 saves.
I decided to compare Hunter’s path to 10 saves, his total thus far this season, with the paths to 10 saves traveled by two previous O’s closers who were known to make things interesting: George Sherrill (“Never a doubt, Georgie”) and Don Stanhouse (“Fullpack”).
How does Hunter’s initial run as closer compare to those of Sherrill and Stanhouse?
Overall Stat Lines: It’s difficult to make statistical comparisons involving Stanhouse because he pitched in such a different era of baseball. Whereas Hunter reached 10 saves in 14 appearances and Sherrill did so in 13 appearances, Stanhouse required 22 appearances to reach the mark. However, Stanhouse was often used for multiple innings and in non-save situations.
As for Hunter and Sherrill, their stat lines suggest they both faced a lot of batters (56 for Hunter, 50 for Sherrill) and tossed a lot of pitches (228 for Hunter, 209 for Sherrill) to reach 10 saves. By comparison, Mariano Rivera faced 41 batters and tossed 160 pitches on his way to recording his first 10 saves in 2013.
Both guys blew a save before reaching 10 saves. Hunter’s 2.84 ERA is better than Sherrill’s 4.63 ERA was after 10 saves.
Signs of Things to Come: All three pitchers gave signs from the get-go that save situations would be neither quick nor easy with them in the closer’s role.
Hunter’s first appearance as the O’s full-time closer featured a 22-pitch ninth inning against the Red Sox on opening day. He faced five batters, hit one of them, allowed a hit to another, and gave David Ortiz the opportunity to bat with two runners on base and a one-run lead.
Sherrill’s closer era began on April 2, 2008 in a 9-6 victory over the Rays. He tossed 21 pitches in one inning of work, issued two walks and struck out two. Sherrill started the inning with a walk, struck out two and walked another before inducing a fly ball from Jonny Gomes with two runners on base.
Stanhouse began his tenure as O’s closer with two solid innings of work on April 8, 1978 in a 16-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. However, his first save situation was less routine. Entering in relief of Dennis Martinez on April 14, 1978, Stanhouse retired the only two batters he faced in the eighth inning, but walked two batters in the ninth inning. A rare 9-3 double play following the first walk kept him out of deeper trouble.
So Hunter, Sherill and Stanhouse each allowed the leadoff batter in the ninth inning of their first save situation to reach base, one via hit by pitch and the other two by way of the walk. They all earned the save, but not before creating stress for the fans.
Walks Versus Hits: Sherrill and Stanhouse tended to put guys on base via walks and hits, while Hunter’s problem is largely limited to hits.
Sherrill allowed a walk in five of 13 games and a hit in five of 13 games. In 14 games when he pitched an inning or less, Stanhouse walked a batter in eight of them and allowed a hit in eight of them. Hunter has given up a hit in 10 of his 14 appearances; twice, he has allowed three hits. However, he has walked batters in only two of 14 appearances.
And Now the Good News: Despite their rocky outings at the outset of their Orioles careers, both Sherrill, in 2008, and Stanhouse, in 1979, ended up as All-Stars. Hunter, meanwhile, leads the American League in saves.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you take the scenic route as long as you get where you’re going in the end.
Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. Follow him on Twitter: @RoarFrom34. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.